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UN: 'Significant Challenges’ in Tanzania Cholera Outbreak

Burundian refugees gather on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Kagunga village, western Tanzania, May 17, 2015.

U.N. aid agencies report better sanitation and clean drinking water is containing a cholera epidemic among Burundian refugees in Tanzania, but there are fears that the deadly disease could spread to the local Tanzanian population.

The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) reports measures to control cholera in western Tanzania’s Lake Tanganyika area appear to be working. More than 4,000 cases of cholera have been reported among newly arrived Burundian refugees there, and the disease has killed 30 people.

The epidemic peaked in early May with 915 cases, but has since subsided to around 100 cases per day. UNHCR says this is due to improved hygiene standards, increased supplies of safe drinking water, and close cooperation by Tanzanian health authorities.

More than 64,000 Burundian refugees have fled to Tanzania this month, trying to escape political turmoil and a failed military coup in Burundi. They are living in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions — a perfect breeding ground for cholera.

“Kagunga, a village which was one of the epicenters of the outbreak and which until only recently was hosting tens of thousands of people, has now been almost emptied of refugees," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said. "Around 30,000 people there have been moved to the Nyagurusu refugee camp, and we hope to complete the movements of the remaining few thousand refugees either today or tomorrow. Arrangements have begun for massive decontamination. There is also work on constructing additional latrines for the villagers themselves.”

Even so, the World Health Organization says the Nyagurusu refugee camp has limited access to clean water and proper sanitation, and basic health care services are inadequate.

According to Dar es Salaam-based Dr. Rufaro Chatora, the WHO's representative for Tanzania, concerns about cholera spreading beyond the camp are escalating.

“We have reports of four people affected in the local population, close to one of the official entry points," he said. And of course we are worried that within the camp where the refugees have gone, if they do not practice the personal hygiene and ensure proper disposal of human waste, then we might also have a problem there.”

Dr. Chatora says the World Health Organization hopes to bring in supplies of oral cholera vaccine. He also said that there also are concerns that about cholera spreading in Burundi, but the insecure situation there makes it impossible for aid workers to cross the border.

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